The Third Half

(photo courtesy of VCU's improbable run into the NCAA tournament is this year's top underdog story.

(photo courtesy of VCU’s improbable run into the NCAA tournament is this year’s top underdog story.


(photo courtesy of VCU's improbable run into the NCAA tournament is this year's top underdog story.

Like many sports fans, I love rooting for the underdog. Upsets and the uncertainty of the NCAA tournament make for a hoops fans’ heaven as small schools defeat big schools and as little-knowns grace the front pages of Sports Illustrated the following week.

For Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, two mid-major schools from the Horizon and Colonial Athletic Association respectively, their run to the final four was a historic, improbable leap for two small schools seeking national attention. They weren’t the only ones to receive attention though as Morehead State and Richmond also sank their first round opponents (with Richmond eventually in the Sweet 16 to Kansas).

For CBS, the bracketologists, and NCAA, this year’s tournament was another step forward in creating a month long buzz stemming from our obsession with college basketball. Add in a possible work stoppage in the NBA (much less the NFL) next season, and college basketball could be the only choice on television other than hockey.

This means big dollars lining the pockets of television networks that broadcast the games, the schools that make the tournament, trickling down all the way to the local sports bars and grilles that serve chicken wings to the fans wearing their school’s official gear licensed by so-and-so. No wonder President Obama seems to be taking an interest in the tournament.

For Butler, their return to the Final Four for the second straight year perhaps only signals the beginning of their mid-major dominance. Their opposition, VCU, took down a highly favored Kansas squad to reach their first Final Four in school history. Before the tournament, I couldn’t name VCU’s conference much less a player or coach from the team.

But this is why we seem to like March Madness – the 15 minutes of fame that an unknown school can receive from a major upset or string of wins against tough opposition. George Mason could be considered the first ‘mid-major’ to crack the Final Four in 2006. Now, Butler returns for the second year in a row (might I add as the favorite to defeat VCU and to return to the championship game).

Perhaps so much of this madness stems from the ‘surprise effect’ that comes with unknown schools defeating more established ones. It’s not like VCU or Butler popped out of nowhere. VCU put together a great year (28-11) and despite finishing 4th in their conference during the regular season, put together a nice run to advance to the tournament. Meanwhile, Butler was 27-9 and a year removed from almost defeating Duke to win the entire tournament.

Upsets and underdogs don’t just pop out of nowhere. With more and more younger players leaving larger conference teams for the NBA early, the talent gap between conferences large and small has closed. Consider it ‘athletics socialism’ in which everyone can have a piece of the pie.

For this channel surfer simultaneously watching three first round games on TruTV, TNT, and CBS, I can only hope to be watching St. Bonaventure take down Kentucky next year or perhaps Belmont bruise UConn on an expanded selection of channels including E! and Oprah’s Network. Who knows, maybe my boss will even wise up given the situation and just give me a whole week off…or at least official bracket printing privileges on the company’s printer. After all, in this day of upsets and underdogs, nothing is for certain.